April 17, 2013 by KWills
It’s useful to have at least one of these in your novel, to be the eyes and ears of your reader. Without Hastings and Watson, two great detectives would never explain their amazing deductions to us. Well, Poirot usually manages to find someone to explain to, being the incorrigible show-off that he is, but it’s nice to have an adoring Hastings around to be impressed all the same. And how much more confusing would the Matrix films have been without Neo asking people to explain things?
An outsider gets to ask about details that the other characters take for granted. Why is there bad blood between the Cuthberts and the Blythes? What is the noise coming from the forbidden corridor? Why is the mysterious Grace Pool hardly ever seen outside of the attic? Characters who have supposedly lived with these things for years can’t really discuss them without risking an “as you know, Bob,” moment and shattering the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Having an outsider around can really help with this problem.
That said, it’s important to give your outsider a good reason for being there. Make sure that your questioning character does more than just ask questions and get the answers on a plate. Make the outsider important to the story, put him to work on some key plot point, or let her work out the answer to a question that people seem reluctant to discuss. Even Arthur Dent, the eternal everyman, adrift in space and subject to the whims of mad aliens, gets to save everybody’s lives now and them. Of course, he completely fails to make any capital out of this, but that’s because he’s Arthur Dent. And we wouldn’t have him any other way.